BRITISH NIHILISM AT CAMBRIDGE
The Iconography of Stephen Hawking
Stephen Hawking and his Lovely wife
Stephen Hawking, the world famous Cambridge cosmologist, is almost completely incapacitated by severe motor neurone disease. He is at once the most courageous, the most vulnerable, and the most brilliant person I have ever encountered. An icon of human aspiration, he and his disability compare to a normally functioning human being as the intellect compares to the actual challenge of comprehending the Universe. In this way he is a mythic icon of Cambridge itself. To me however, he and his condition symbolize the scientific project to penetrate into the mystery of Being, a crumpled and attenuated attempt to understand our universe when we have overlooked the robust nature of our true home.
Does an ant live in the same universe as humans do? If not, how is it different?
Does the universe contain consciousness or does consciousness contain the universe?
In November of 2005 Cambridge served up an intellectual feast in San Francisco for its West Coast graduates. The “Cambridge Day” was a splendid opportunity to relate to an expert team of governors and professors from Cambridge. As the University was setting about to raise 1.75 Billion Dollars, it was quite lavish. The star speaker at the climax of a day of lectures was Stephen Hawking, the world famous cosmologist, who is almost completely incapacitated by severe motor neurone disease. His subject: the Origins of the Universe.
View of King’s College from the Cambridge River
Some of the happiest days of my life were spent at Cambridge. For an American, the experience could be described as “mythic”. Culturally I felt more stimulated there than anyplace I have ever lived. Intellectually however, I was not so much a foreigner, as an alien. This position arose not from being a Yank, but from my dedication to the study of Martin Heidegger, which earlier at the Harvard Divinity School had inspired me to set off on life as a pilgrim on the way of philosophical gnosis. According to this great 20th Century thinker – distinctly unfashionable at Cambridge — the prevailing scientific mentality has us so enamored of the “ontic world” of external facts and objects, that we have forgotten the “Ground of Being”. Translated into more operational terms, this means that our collective gaze is fixated so firmly on the world that we have forgotten that everything we can experience or calculate is grounded in our consciousness. Heidegger’s perspective is well on the way to the extreme Buddhist view that there is nothing other than “consciousness only”. But this is no intellectual proposition. To treat it as such is to reduce it to an absurdity. It is a fundamental insight arrived at only through contemplation, a first person objectivity which over millennia has been developed as rigorously as the methods of advanced science. It is experiential, radically empirical, and a perspective fundamentally absent at Cambridge.
There is, however, elsewhere in the world, an upsurge of brilliant investigation into consciousness informed in part by ancient contemplative traditions. Having studied the history of ideas, it is my guess that over time, as this fundamental ground comes to be attended and understood anew, the evaluation of the nature of this world and the universe will be radically modified. And, one day, today’s most advanced scientific propositions will be seen as dated and quaint, rather the way we now view mythological cosmologies that once served as the informed explications of the world.
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This is an old story. Throughout the history of the world there has been a timeless dialogue between what we could loosely call “Platonists” and “Aristotelians”. Platonists tend to focus on the experience of consciousness as the ground of all being, and Aristotelians focus on the “outer” world in which consciousness comes to be designated as merely one thing among others. Aristotelians are disposed to look for an ontic God out there, an intelligent designer. (Fn 1, see bottom of text) Once they become materialists they drop this quest. The basis of true religion and mystical experience is Platonic. Psychologically speaking, Platonists are gnostics. They are not theistically inclined; their doubt is focused on the world itself, and they come to understand the intelligent design of all experience as the one God. This dialogue of perspectives is at the heart of the question of the foundation of Being and is never really resolved. There are always two camps that are unable to settle the issues that arise around this ontological difference.
This is no mere academic controversy: it is deep in the heart of our time. These two views as to “what we are in”, are the core issue in today’s crises over the question of faith, the existence of God, and the meaning of existence itself. Aristotelians, now largely atheistic materialists, live in an ontic world of things and scientific facts, all of which add up to the absurdity of there being any intelligent agency such as God. (Fn 2) In the late Nineteenth Century Nietzsche proclaimed this absurdity to be “the death of God”, bringing into view nihilism as the present reality in the West: a “flat world” having no intrinsic value, with all its consequent materialistic depravity and spiritual anarchy. To redress this profound imbalance, the frustrated “faithful” would force their belief (which they confuse with fact) upon the world in ways that grow daily more violent: everything from warrior fundame
ntalists to the “faithful” a
mong the Aristotelians trying to impose “Intelligent Design” to sneak God back into the ontic world by the respectable, scientific door. They are desperate. Nihilism, compounded by increasingly rapid change, creates fundamental existential suffering. In contrast, Platonists, and the traditions of Asia, contemplate what we are in as consciousness. All is consciousness. They have no problem with the existence of God, because they know that anyone who has “known God” has in fact realized their own consciousness as the basis of existence. The Aristotelian view leads to an atheistic metaphysics and the crises of nihilism: the Platonic leads ultimately to a monistic consciousness-based reality.
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Cambridge is one of the distinguished world capitols of the prevailing materialism and scientism of the modern world, a paragon of the Aristotelian camp. Over six years of residence and many visits to Cambridge, I have loved it and rejoiced in the enchantment of life there, but I always felt something of an outsider, because although I appreciate the Aristotelian enormously, my inner knowing is Platonist. We inhabit consciousness and our universe inhabits consciousness as well. In some fundamental way, the endeavor to understand the universe is fundamentally futile if we have not comprehended its container. It is woefully insufficient to say that this container is just one item among others, which we will get around to one day when we come to final knowledge of the facts of the universe. Furthermore, so long as we do not comprehend the ground, our true home, we will never achieve real well-being. If I have any conviction, it is this.
Two weeks prior to this wonderful Cambridge event, participants received an e-mail invitation to send in a question for Steven Hawking. During his lecture on the origins of the universe, he would pick four of these questions to answer. I thought it was just the time to put out this foundational question: how can we account for the universe when we have not considered the ground of being and merely assume that the real world (or universe) exists outside of our consciousness?
When I received this e-mail, I was visiting my friend Stephan Schwartz. He is in my view one of the pre-eminent figures trying to restore consciousness to the center of scientific endeavor. He suggested that I put forth the question in this way: “How does consciousness interface with quantum mechanics?” I sent this in as I felt that it formulated the entire question in a very scientific way.
Early in the Cambridge Day, Gerry Gilmore, Professor of the Philosophy of Experimentation, lectured on the origin and future of the universe. At the end of his lecture I asked the question I had asked in my e-mail, adding: How does consciousness relate to this universe? He answered that it was a very interesting question. After the lecture I asked him if there is anything that can be said or thought or posited to exist that is outside of consciousness. Together, we quickly came to the striking formulation that the entire inquiry into the experimental method of science (his real field of study) comes to this: the history of humankind’s attempt to get outside of consciousness and ascertain what is “really there.” When pressed, he admitted that he was not at all sure that we have been able to do it. Then he added, “I am not even certain that it can be done.” In the end, this was the most satisfying answer to my questions. It confirmed my own life inquiry, inspired and ultimately defined by Heidegger: how can we come to the truth of beings until we come to the truth of Being.
In the course of this academic feast set before us by Cambridge we had the opportunity to delight in the excellence of every kind of ontic endeavor. At the end was the climactic moment when Stephen Hawking appeared. To much applause, a student rolled him out in his little wheel chair cum computer. It was a fathomlessly touching sight, his attenuated paralyzed body crumpled piteously in this conveyance, which is his mechanical body. His wife/nurse, strikingly red- headed and vital, stood nearby. As he was rolled up to the speaker’s platform, we were all fixated in silent awe. It was explained to us that Stephen can operate a computer mounted on his conveyance through a sensor that picks up signals generated by fluctuations in one cheek muscle, the only part of his body that he can still control. The digital formulations it produces on the screen mounted before him are then spoken out of a box in a kind of robotic squawk. One could barely comprehend the vast contradiction between his physical capacity and the gigantic robustness of his intellect. The overall effect was stupendous: one was in the presence of a high-tech Oracle.
Hawking spoke for about 45 minutes, tracing the answers in history to the question; ” What is the Universe?” It was such an awesome experience to watch him perform, that only when the lecture was over did I realize that he had not chosen to answer my question.
Shortly afterwards there was a cocktail reception where the academic luminaries were available for schmoozing and socializing. It was an intoxicating climax to a deliriously heady experience.
At one point I suddenly found myself in front of Hawking and his attractive entourage. No one was speaking. Carpe Diem! I asked him if he remembered my question, and the speaker box answered, “Yes”. I then repeated it: “What is the relationship of consciousness to the quantum universe?” Subsequently, his wife told me that it took 140 hours for him to prepare his lecture. This is why the questions had to be pre-sorted. If you ask him a question it takes about five minutes for him to formulate an answer. To call this an awkward silence is an understatement; it was an oracular silence.
For five discomfited minutes of much clicking I could observe the miniscule fluctuations of his cheek by which he was finding words for his answer on the screen before him. It was uncomfortable to say the very least, with all of his entourage around him and others waiting for the answer. The atmosphere was close. Even stifling. I asked my friend, who was standing behind him, to write down the answer that came on the screen, as I was sure I would not r
emember it rightly once it emerged out of the voice box. After an interminable wait, an answer came: “Conshusness is very hard to define from the outside. Can we tell if a computer has it?” It was stunningly accurate; this dismissal of consciousness because it is not a quantifiable object is where the monumental error begins.
No doubt emboldened by two glasses of champagne, I heard a torrent of words coming out of my own voice box. “The computer extends our consciousness, which itself can only be described from inside because it is our essential container. Have you ever had one thought, one perception, one formulation that was not first contained within consciousness? How can we get out of this container without first understanding how we are absolutely grounded in it?” As I wanted him to hear me, I was very close to him.
Then came an abysmal moment when I realized this dialogue was all too fundamental, too complex for this appalling and awkward hi-tech situation. Empathetically I saw in his eyes at once his goodness and a look of fright that, even if he could answer, the formulation and process of getting it out was simply overwhelming, especially in this cocktail party situation. In this moment of fathoming his vulnerability, I also saw my own aggressiveness and deep frustration that the basic questions in my heart were never addressed by his science or by Cambridge. At the same time his charming helper said to me tactfully, that it is much better if I can formulate my question for a yes or no answer. I drew back my force and crouched closer to him, and, with as much care as I could muster, apologized for being overbearing and said that this is a wonderful debate, but far too basic and complex to deal with in this circumstance. As the whole entourage proceeded on into another room, I am sure he felt relieved.
As I recovered from this encounter, I was flooded with many realizations. First of all, his answer was sufficient. His endeavor and that of the scientific method can deal only with what can be quantified and objectified. Insofar as scientists like my friend Stephan Schwartz can succeed in objectifying and quantifying aspects of consciousness, we can be grateful to them as they proceed on their noble course, but the way I have taken, informed by many years in India and California, is finally the ancient path of contemplation, learning how to stand motionless within consciousness and observe objectively the pre-ontic primordial ground we are all in and how it gives birth to the world and universe we think we are in. (Fn 3) Bypassing Cambridge, whose ignorance of this is resolutely provincial, I have gone to the ages and to other continents, where there have been many masters and traditions of contemplation. Formal contemplation is not aggressive and does not yield technology or its boons, but it is truer, and it generates true civilization. This is what I have come to in my passionate seeking. It is inveterately Platonic in an Aristotelian world, a difference as old as contemplation itself. There are other chronic Platonists out there, and we are all working to come to terms in new ways with what we and this universe are. If there is a future for human culture, it will ultimately depend upon this and not some ultimate mastery of facts.
As for lovely Hawking, shortly after this encounter he had a crisis, was rushed to the hospital in San Francisco, and actually stopped breathing. Through emergency procedures doctors were able to revive him, and he continued on his tour! He is at once the most courageous, the most vulnerable, and the most brilliant person I have ever encountered. He is an icon of human aspiration. He and his disability compare to a normally functioning human being as the intellect compares to the actual challenge of comprehending the Universe. As we all basically intuit this in his presence, he and the bravery with which he faces every moment is a symbol of our ambition and inspiration in the face of our appalling vulnerability and ultimate ignorance. In this way he is a mythic icon of Cambridge itself. To me however he and his condition symbolize the scientific project to penetrate into the mystery of Being, a crumpled and attenuated attempt to understand our universe when we have overlooked the robust nature of our true home.
Addendum 2008 – Humanities at Cambridge
Footnote 1: Aristotle himself was philosophically devoted to a God who was however “out there” and “remote”, either as a first cause (way back there at the beginning) or as a telos, ultimate purpose of all things (way out there at the end). This became the basis for the philosophical justification of Christian theism in the Middle Ages, the position which the progress of science has gradually rendered invalid.
Footnote 2: This is not to say that scientists cannot be religious, as so many of the really great ones have been: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Schweitzer and Gregor Mendel come to mind. But for the most part, they partition off their religion from their scientific understanding of data. Mystical insight grows in them with their awe at the universe and their maturity as human beings. They see religion as another “dimension”, an intuitive one, to be pursued on its own as a matter of faith: they do not dedicate themselves to understanding how the objects they are studying are rooted in a Divine Ground of consciousness that is prior to data or phenomena. Scientists that dedicate themselves to subversive theistic trends such as “intelligent design” are hugely frowned upon. I doubt they would be tolerated at Cambridge.
Footnote 3: The Dalai Lama, who has for decades dedicated himself to the study of Western science, has recently begun a campaign to inspire scientists to validate the extreme rigor of 25 centuries of Buddhist contemplation and to give the kind of credence to disciplined first person observation that it gives traditionally to objective empirical observation. Such a radical shift in scientific perspective would drastically alter the entire situation. It would entitle science to view the reality of “I” with the same rigor as it presently fixes on the reality of “it”. The phenomenologists following upon Edmund Husserl and culminating in Heidegger carried out this project, but it remained a philosophical discipline, not a scientific one.